OK, I didn't watch the SOTU. First of all, every minute would feel like having my teeth drilled. And second, I was singing in a concert last night. (Pretty great concert. Check out the web site of the chorus here.) But anyway, I've read enough about it to have a good idea what was in there.
At least on the domestic policy front, here's my summary: "I stand for free stuff." Universal child care! Paid sick leave! Paid maternity leave! Government guaranty of equal pay for women! Higher minimum wage! Free community college! Supposedly this is the plan to "help" the middle class. And then at the end of the speech: "surely we can all agree" on these goals.
Do large numbers (let alone a majority) of middle class people actually think that their lives will be improved by getting more and more compulsory free stuff from the government? I find it hard to believe, and the rapidly increasing numbers of Republican office holders in the era of Obama would seem to validate my skepticism; but I've never seen a poll directly addressing that question.
In my view the idea that lots of free stuff can improve the situation of the middle class is just a simple fallacy. Sure, the government can make any one person rich by handing out a check, or enough free stuff. If the government gives you a check for a billion dollars, you are now a billionaire. That's great for you. And in a country with over 300 million people, everybody else just lost about $3 each -- they'll never even notice. So handing out free stuff seems to work great when the stuff only goes to a small number of people. But the whole thing doesn't hold together when the proposal is that everybody gets the free stuff and everybody has to pay for it, which is what Obama is proposing. It's not complicated to understand. Suppose that the government hands out a check for a billion dollars to everybody. Sorry, but nobody is rich. In the aggregate we can only consume what we produce. What they've done instead of making everybody rich is to eliminate the ability of anyone to get ahead through hard work and effort.
Well, at least if they pass out money, you still get to pick what you buy. When they hand out the stuff, you're stuck with what they decide is good for you. Community college is not right for you? Too bad, you must pay for it anyway! (Remember, close to half the population does not attend any post-secondary education at all, and this is mostly the lower part of the income distribution. In our tax system these people may pay less than their pro rata share of the taxes, but why again should they pay anything at all for some better off person's higher education?) If you're in the middle class, the only thing that government's universal distribution of "free stuff" can accomplish for you is gradually to take away your ability to get ahead by hard work. It's like attaching a ball and chain around your ankle in your race to succeed.
Mitt Romney was far from my favorite as the Republican candidate for President, but he did have a great moment on the "free stuff" issue. In March 2012 a heckler at a campaign stop asked this question:
“So you’re all for like, ‘yay, freedom,’ and all this stuff. And ‘yay, like pursuit of happiness.’ You know what would make me happy? Free birth control.”
And Romney replied:
"If you’re looking for free stuff you don’t have to pay for, vote for the other guy. That’s what he’s all about, okay? That’s not, that’s not what I’m about.”